Robin Yassin-Kassab

Sectarianism and Honesty

with 13 comments

the Syrian dictator accompanied by the Sunni mufti

This was published in the excellent Ceasefire magazine.

Ba‘athism began as a conscious attempt to supercede the sectarian and regional divisions which plague the Arab world. That’s why many of its early ideologues were Christians or members of other minority groups. The Ba‘athist slogan umma arabiya wahida zat risala khalida – One Arab Nation Bearing an Eternal Message – employing the word for ‘nation’ which previously designated the international Muslim community, and the word for ‘message’ previously associated with the Prophet Muhammad’s divine message – suggests that this variety of Arabism actually intended to supercede religion itself, or to become a new religion.

In Iraq it all went wrong very quickly. Saddamist Ba‘athism in effect designated ethnic Arabs of the Sunni sect as true Arabs, the Shia majority as quasi-Persian infiltrators, and the Kurds as an enemy nation. Saddam even wrote a characteristic pamphlet called ‘Three Things God Should Not Have Invented – Persians, Jews and Flies’, and so demonstrated the slip from nationalism to fascism.

Syria was somewhat different, somewhat more sophisticated. Despite the fact that the president and his top spies and generals were Alawis from the Lattakkia region, only Sunni Islam and Christianity were taught in the education system (to the chagrin of traditional Alawi shaikhs). When the president prayed in public he prayed in the manner of the majority, Sunni-style. In the last couple of decades the regime sought to broaden its base by coopting Sunni businessmen as well as soldiers from the minority groups. And the majority’s rituals and religious festivals were never banned as they were in Iraq.

Public discussion of sect and sectarianism was taboo. To an extent this was a good thing. When I lived in Damascus I heard about a Christian (the friend of a friend) who had a fist fight with a Jew. The fight was over the affections of a woman, and had nothing to do with religion or sect, but the Christian was nevertheless swooped upon by plain-clothes mukhabarat on suspicion of provoking sectarian dissension. This was unfair, but also somehow impressive. (Of course, if you were minster of defense – and your name was Mustafa Tlass – you could write volumes of ridiculous text on Jewish ‘blood sacrifice’ and no mukhabarat would swoop down on you).

The taboo extended so far that the word ‘church’ in an English-language film would be translated on state TV as ‘place of worship’. The regime apparently assumed that the best way to deal with the social cleavage was to ignore it, and to infantalise the people so that they would be forced to ignore it too. But ignoring an illness is never a good idea, and the regime’s policy – if it really was intended to overcome sectarianism – failed miserably. An honest public discussion would have necessarily aired a variety of perspectives, and would have allowed more Sunnis to understand why Alawis and Christians sometimes feel ill at ease with their neighbours. Post-war Germany underwent an honest examination of its anti-Semitism, and is a much better place for it (the examination was sometimes derailed by Zionism, as Gunter Grass notes, but that’s another story). Post-apartheid South Africa avoided collapsing into chaos by its truth and reconciliation process, which not only allowed blacks to express their injuries, resentments and fears, but also whites. The absence of public discussion in Syria, on the other hand, increased the sectarian vitriol of private discussions. Evil grows best in the dark.

Symptoms of this stultifying taboo afflict several pro-revolution Syrians today. At a recent event in London I heard Ali Ferzat describe Syria as a beautiful and unified mosaic of peoples. He stated very firmly that Syrians had never in their history suffered from sectarian hatred or violence.

(Ali Ferzat doesn’t claim to be a political analyst, so I don’t hold his romanticism against him. He claims to be a cartoonist, and indeed he’s perhaps the best, or most important, cartoonist in the world, one who tackles universal as well as local themes. He’s also a man whose hands were broken by the regime.)

There is certainly some truth to the mosaic idea. A variety of ethnicities and religions have coexisted in Greater Syria for thousands of years, and peaceful interaction has been the rule. Yet there have been bloody exceptions. As Ottomanism degenerated and European powers moved in to sponsor favoured communities in the 19th Century, relations often broke down. Druze and Christians fought each other. In 1860 the Christian quarter of Damascus was destroyed by fire. And then there’s the case of the Alawis. Except in Antakya, now part of Turkey, Alawis didn’t share Syrian cities with Sunnis until the French arrived in the 1920s. Since Ibn Taymiyya, under Mamluks and Ottomans, Alawis were deprived of all legal and civil rights as soon as they set foot outside their own villages. Most young Alawis have no theological gripe with Sunnism, but they’ve heard stories of insult and humiliation from their grandfathers.

All this has to be recognised and understood in order to understand the divide-and-rule strategy of British and French imperialism in the north eastern Arab world. After Sykes-Picot drew the artificial borders, minority groups were propelled to power in each new country. In Iraq Sunni Arabs inherited. In Jordan the Meccan Hashemite family ruled over local Beduin (and later Palestinian refugees). Palestine was controlled by Zionist Jews, an immigrant minority which (briefly) became a majority when most of the natives were driven out. In Lebanon Maronite Christians held prime position over the panoply of sects.

In Syria, the French first tried to further split the country according to region and sect. This plan failed (to the credit of the Syrian people), but the French were successful in building an army of minorities. The troupes speciales were recruited disproportionately from hitherto oppressed rural minority groups. This was the basis of the national army which first took over the country (with CIA help) in 1946, and which has ruled for most of the time since.

The ugly history has to be understood now most urgently because the regime has instrumentalised sect so savagely since the uprising began. It has done so through its propaganda and, more dangerously, by arming Alawi thugs and sending them to kill and rape in Sunni neighbourhoods. The ruling gang’s objective is to encourage Sunni hatred of Alawis so as to scare Alawis into loyalty to their ‘Alawi’ president. It doesn’t need to be said that the Alawi community as a whole is, or will be, the prime victim of this policy.

Rather than eternally agitating for a Western military intervention that will probably never come, the Syrian National Council would do better to address Alawis and Christians specifically and repeatedly, to name the crimes committed against them in the past, and to welcome the migration of Alawis and others to the urban centres in the Ba‘athist years as a redress of historical wrongs. And anti-Sunni prejudice should also be addressed. Those Syrians who believe that a chant of ‘Allahu akbar’ is inevitably a call for Sunni supremacy, for instance, should be encouraged to confront their assumptions.

Saudi-backed Salafists are already talking about sect. Important sections of Sunni society in Lebanon and Iraq understand the Syrian tragedy in sectarian terms. Western journalists very often overemphasise the salience of sect. Why then do pro-revolution leftists, liberals and secularists tend to ignore the issue, and to leave the field to more retrograde voices? People are being killed. There isn’t any more time to waste on taboos.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 15, 2012 at 7:30 pm

Posted in Arabism, Sectarianism, Syria

Tagged with ,

13 Responses

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  1. This is a very good article. Simply speaking Syrians have been living a huge lie for a whole century.


    April 15, 2012 at 11:47 pm

  2. This is a great distillation of what I have come to understand from various sources. The false advertising has taken root in many arguments. The gloriously free and open religious landscape … was not quite as featured in the brochure.


    April 16, 2012 at 7:54 am

  3. […] The British-based Syrian writer Robin Yassim-Kassab urges the Syrian opposition to focus on combating… The ruling gang’s objective is to encourage Sunni hatred of Alawis so as to scare Alawis into […]

  4. […] The British-based Syrian writer Robin Yassim-Kassab urges the Syrian opposition to focus on combatin… The ruling gang’s objective is to encourage Sunni hatred of Alawis so as to scare Alawis into […]

  5. Enjoyable article. But the main reason why sectarian feelings have exploded in Syria is because of Iraq. Prior to 2003 sectarianism in the region was lower than it is today. The empowerment of the shia in Iraq through democratic elections brought these problems to the surface. If the sunnis want to remove Asad from power i suggest they concentrate on the notion of democracy. If they are the majority they will earn the right to take control of the country, with minimal damage.


    April 16, 2012 at 3:06 pm

  6. […] continued here Share this:FacebookTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  7. […] The British-based Syrian writer Robin Yassim-Kassab urges the Syrian opposition to focus on combatin… The ruling gang’s objective is to encourage Sunni hatred of Alawis so as to scare Alawis into […]

  8. thanks to the Guardian, half the world that cares (about three people?) now thinks that my name is Yassim, not Yassin, and that I’m a Syrian writer rather than a British writer of Syrian origin – or whatever it is that I am.

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    April 16, 2012 at 9:59 pm

  9. The idea of a truth and reconciliation process, similar to post-apartheid South Africa, is a very important one. It is the only way to stop Syria becoming another Iraq or Lebanon, but this process can only happen post-Assad era.

    Also, it seems to me that sectarianism mainly arises whenever there is conflict and war. It is so easy for a human being to adopt sectarianism in times of crisis, maybe its just a human weakness, or maybe it just flares up whenever human beings are under immense pressure due to hardships. We just have a tendency to blame our problems and direct our hatred onto another person. e.g. in Europe anti-Islam has been on the rise, in my opinion, mostly due to hardships and fueled by media.

    It is the responsibility of the people in Syria to raise such awareness, Im not sure the people regard the SNC as a role model yet, so I doubt they will pay attention to the SNC


    April 17, 2012 at 1:56 pm

  10. Thanks Qunfuz for a timely article. I never thought that we are a sectarian society.Yet, I always felt oppressed. True, I belonged to the majority but that meant nothing to me. I always thought, since I was little, that the father, the regime and their offspring are true devils in our midst.

    We cannot talk, we cannot walk close to a mukhabarat post, we cannot mention their bloody name, we lived in fear from the 70s till his death. The only taboo was Assad, his brother and his hired gangs, including the despicable, most hated Khaddam. No, I do not believe we are sectarian, we are all oppressed. Sunni, Shiite, Alawits Ismaiilis, Kurds, Palestinians, Armenians…..

    “Public discussion of sect and sectarianism was taboo.” Pardon me, Qunfuz! I’d never heard anyone having a serious discussion, or an intellectual discussion, before the advent of satellite TV, we were forced to see his face 24/7, in schools, government buildings, offices, shops….you name it, you return home, turn on the TV, here he is again and again and again, forever….with his smirk and weird hair line, I always thought of him as a snail, something creepy…he died, It was a relief and utter fear, the unknown.

    During the day, all family members will be out on the streets looking for bread, as early as 5:30 in the morning. No political magazines were allowed into the country.. we were cut off the world. Can you imagine the majority, for 40 years, were cut off the world. Those who cannot venture outside the realm of the tyrant. Knew nothing, saw nothing, had time for nothing. Intellectually we were isolated..

    Your article is timely, the problem is those stirring the pot.Brewing, Stewing, For a very long time now.

    You are right, we have to be vigilant, reassuring. SNC and individuals. We have to work collectively to burst this false, imaginary crescent! The new wave is to replace all the minorities that were ruling majorities with a different equation. Sunni vs. Shiites. This will effect the gulf region more than anywhere, it will weaken them.

    The Gulf is playing with fire. They are no less evil, than Saddam, Qaddafi, Assad, Saleh all the 22 lpuppets, including the PA.


    April 19, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    • thank you, hello, for such an interesting and well written comment.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      April 19, 2012 at 11:14 pm

  11. Thank you for this article. I have written extensively on political sectarianism which infects the left here in the west. I drew up a list of the sectarian characterisitics in ‘Sectarianism and calls for a general strike’. on my blog at http://www.critical-mass.net – It is good to hear of how religious sectarianism manifests itself in your important part of the world.

    Regards, Roy

    Roy Ratcliffe

    May 30, 2013 at 10:33 am

  12. […] argument by Robin Yassin-Kassab, who looks back at the history of Syria’s sectarian divides. And what […]

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